200 years and counting

I read plaques and historical markers, especially those found in and around churches. Many offer only a name: “Given in memory of _______.” No dates or qualifiers. Others provide a title: “elder” or “pastor” or “child of this church.” Some give a descriptor: “beloved,” “dedicated,” “faithful.” Often a Scripture passage follows: “Well done good and faithful servant.” I fixate on the dates when present. I look at the span of a lifetime or ministry. I note concurrent events: the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Great Depression, the civil rights movement. I wonder about how those happenings impacted that person’s life, community and service. During a recent visit to Scotland, the years and history expanded exponentially, affording a much longer view of all the church and church people witnessed and withstood. I do not find these marble and brass tours depressing or morbid. On the contrary, they give me solace.

Pondering the past – the pain, the tumult, the slow evolution and catastrophic upheaval – offers a needed perspective when I imagine that the times in which we live in are the most traumatic ever and the church’s role increasingly irrelevant. When I think of the pastor stepping in the pulpit the Sunday after the shot heard around the world or the week after Hiroshima, I feel chastened, not so filled with self-importance or gravitas, put in my place knowing Christ’s church is not silenced or shuttered in response to human history, but rather speaks and witnesses to it — and sometimes by the power of the Holy Spirit speaks and witnesses through it. Much came before us; much will happen after we are gone. Those etched names and dates scattered around sanctuary walls and carved on cemetery stones remind me to aspire to the adjectives found alongside them: faithful, dedicated, beloved, servant, dutiful, obedient. Seeing the beginning and the end dates of all those in the company of the saints alerts me to the finitude of my days and the expansiveness of God’s time. I think about the day before those infamous days in history and I recognize the limits of our knowledge and the importance of focusing on Jesus Christ daily.

As we mark the end of our 200th year at the Presbyterian Outlook, I give thanks for the people who sought to speak God’s Word in their day, no matter the circumstances swirling around them. Looking back offers us wisdom for moving forward. Chapters of our life together engender lament, confession and repentance. Even while we acknowledge context and our gift of hindsight, we cannot justify the many years and pages devoted to the biblical defense of slavery that is a large part of this church paper’s heritage. The only appropriate response to such sentiment is regret and reparation. As we survey our current culture, our call is to pray that the scales be removed from our eyes in order that we will be found faithful and on the side of justice in our own day. We fervently hope to emulate the example of the courageous members of this community who unequivocally wrote and spoke and worked for an end to oppression in both church and society, knowing, at some point, others will review our record and learn from it one way or another.

We only have our time to fulfill our baptismal vocation. Being mindful of God’s kairos does not exempt us from being faithful in our chronos. In fact, those plaques and markers, the ones printed in ink and the ones written in stone, remind me of my privilege and obligation to do my part in furthering God’s work in this world —
not so as to be judged kindly by those who come after me, but in order to make the lives of those traveling this earthly journey with me better right now. While I would like to think that those who evaluate our record years from now will want to claim and imitate us, what’s far more important is that Jesus claims us, and we are to imitate him. As I write this, I have no idea what will happen tomorrow, or the impact of all our words, intentions or actions. What I know for sure is that in our time, and all the time, God is good and we are called to proclaim that truth.

Grace and peace,